Moving America to the Right

State Law: All Vehicles Keep Right Except To Pass

While there are many issues on which Americans are divided, there is one on which we passionately agree: Drivers who clog up the left lanes of our highways are a menace to society.

The most glaring examples of this are drivers who hang out  in the left lane without any vehicles in front of them. I have heard more than one person explain this behavior thusly: “My taxes pay for these roads, so I’ll drive wherever the hell I please.” As the people who use this justification typically have a chronological age that is followed by the phrase “years young,” they should be reminded that their taxes also pay for Medicare and that their fellow drivers are wishing upon them an occasion to use that too.

The bigger and more insidious problem, however, is drivers who drive in the left lane at speeds just barely faster than the vehicles in the lane next to them. They can claim that they are passing, but their behavior creates a line of cars stuck behind them. Each of those left-lane-clogging drivers can claim that they are going as fast as the car(s) in front of them and that they would speed up if only those drivers would just get out of their damn way. Guess what, folks? You’re all part of the problem.

I witnessed this behavior last week when I traveled round-trip from Seattle to Eugene, Oregon, which consisted mostly of driving on I-5. Despite the repeated presence of signs reading “Keep Right Except to Pass” (Washington) and “Slower Traffic Keep Right” (Oregon), there were frequently long lines of cars moseying along in the left lane, at or just above the speed of the adjacent lane. In areas where the highway was three lanes wide, it was at times possible to drive faster in the right lane than in either the left or middle lanes. (Not that I would ever suggest doing something as reckless and illegal as passing on the right.)

This problem seems more pronounced here in the Pacific Northwest. In less passive-aggressive parts of the country, drivers will flash their high-beams or honk to get the other driver’s attention, but the typical PNW driver will just quietly tailgate the car in front of them, hoping that they’ll notice and move out of the way. A tip to those people: If the driver of the car in front of you is too clueless to realize that they’re needlessly hogging the passing lane, they’re probably not checking their rear-view mirror either.

I tried to model good Autobahn-style behavior – staying to the right, except when actively overtaking another vehicle – but due to the left-lane clogging, this frequently caused me to fall behind the flow of traffic. And it definitely involved a lot more lane changing that just hanging out in the left lane with the other cars and very gradually overtaking the semis that populated the right lane.

Mind you, it is already against the law in Washington State to “to drive continuously in the left lane of a multilane roadway when it impedes the flow of other traffic.” While there are occasionally efforts to enforce this, it is quite understandably not a priority for law enforcement. An attempt this year to enact more stringent penalties failed; I’m not the only one who noted the irony that the bill’s co-sponsors are small-government conservatives who would normally be opposed to this sort of superfluous regulation if their jobs didn’t involve a long commute to Olympia.

As I drove, I thought to myself, “What would Daniel Pink do?” For those of you who haven’t read his books or articles or watched the show Crowd Control, Pink studies human behavior and in particular how to motivate people. He has creatively addressed a number of situations where people behave selfishly or illegally and where relying on official law enforcement is not a scalable way to deter the offending behavior. For example, this Lawbreakers video addresses people who illegally park in disabled parking spaces.

Inspired by Pink’s work, I offer this proposal: Treat the passing lane as the limited-supply resource that it is. Install toll pass readers at regular, short intervals (say, once every half-mile) and charge people a small toll for driving in this lane. Not enough to be expensive, but enough to make people think twice about remaining in the left lane longer than necessary. We can experiment with various rates to see what is the lowest amount you can charge and keep the left lane clear; perhaps it would take five cents a mile, or perhaps it can be accomplished for as little as one or two cents a mile. We’d want to ensure that the generated revenue covers the capital and operational costs of the tolling system, but what we don’t already know from the numerous existing systems in place can be determined via experimentation. This proposal won’t eliminate people cruising along in the left lane, but it will make people think more carefully about doing it. If some of them still consciously choose to camp out in the left lane, they’re literally paying for the privilege, and we’re no worse off than we are today.

You’re probably thinking of various cases in which this toll would be unfair, but I’m confident that they could be addressed. What happens if there’s a traffic jam and people are forced into the left lane just to get around it? Charge the toll only if the vehicle is driving above a certain minimum speed; let’s say 45 MPH, though again, we can refine this through experimentation. What about left lane exits, or areas where the left lane is the only through lane? Those areas would clearly be excluded from the collection zones. In fact, I would make the stronger statement that this system would be impractical in urban areas, and if you exclude those, you probably eliminate virtually all places where there are left lane exits. What about construction zones where the left lane is temporarily the only lane available? Disable the toll readers in the construction zone while the construction is in progress. Won’t this encourage people to make unsafe lane changes out of the left lane to avoid triggering an upcoming toll reader? Theoretically it could, but if someone is willing to put their own life at risk to save one or two pennies, we probably don’t want them driving on our highways. (And before you ask your next question, the answer is, “Yes, I have driven in New York City and Boston.”)

There is also the broader issue of driver privacy. Do we really want the government tracking our location and speed as we cruise along our network of interstates? What’s to prevent the government from infringing on our privacy and freedom of movement? I agree that the government should not be in the business of collecting this information; we should leave it where it is today, in the trustworthy and capable hands of Google, State Farm, and your wireless carrier. But seriously, this issue exists today with automated toll collection systems, so whatever safeguards we develop for those can be applied here.

By encouraging our fellow drivers to be more intentional about their use of the left lane, we can keep it more freely available for its intended purpose: As an active passing lane.

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